“Rowdies who make a pastime out of interrupting Sunday school processions have been taught an important lesson at Armagh Assizes,” declared the News Letter in an editorial published in March 1881.
The paper told how the rioters had “savagely” attacked the Rev Abraham L Forde and his Sunday school children from Bessbrook during their annual outing to “the Primatial City of Armagh” the previous August.
In the view of the News Letter, justice had been served up to the rioters, the editorial remarked: “The law is a schoolmaster and a better preceptor could not well be found than Mr Justice Lawson, who heard the case of the wanton and savage attack on the Rev Abraham L Forde and his Sunday school children.”
The News Letter told how the party from Bessbrook had journeyed to Armagh by train with two bands and a number of banners “on which were the usual inscriptions” the paper declared: “But neither in the inscriptions nor in the music was there anything calculated to offend any sections of the community”.
Shortly before 11 o’clock the party had reached Armagh and proceeded to the cathedral before then going on to the Primate’s demesne. All went well enough, noted the paper, but when the children were on their return to the railway station but when they reached the Shambles they found “a number of fellows” in line standing across the street and blocking their path. Immediately a volley of stones had been thrown at the band at the front of the procession.
The Rev Forde approached the crowd an appealed for common sense, but it was then that the mob that stood behind the line of men “took up the manly work” and sent a further shower of stones at the procession.
The News Letter told how the assizes had heard evidence that a Joseph Murtagh, who it was believed was the ringleader of “the rowdies” and whose character the judge referred to as “decidedly bad”, struck the clergyman twice. Several other members of the procession were also struck, “some of them receiving dangerous wounds”. As the procession moved forward another mob swept down upon it from Bawnbrook Hill and the stone-throwing continued until the Sunday school outing finally reached the railway station.
The evidence of the Rev Forde was corroborated by Sub-Constable John Faughlin who identified several of the stone-throwers. One of the worst features of the attack, noted the News Letter, was the presence of “a fellow wearing the Queen’s livery” who belonged to a regiment “whose colours testify to its services and its valour”.
After hearing the evidence the jury found all the accused guilty except for two persons, and “Mr Justice Lawson meted out the punishment they deserved”, the paper declared: “They degraded themselves and they disgraced the ancient city; but they have been the means of teaching an important lesson to blackguards, who take fiendish delight in wantonly assaulting Sunday school processions.”
In making his opening remarks at the sentencing of the rioters Mr Justice Lawson said: “Joseph Murtagh and Daniel Watson, and all the rest of you traversers, have been found guilty by the jury of this riot in the streets in Armagh, which I am bound to say was an entirely unprovoked attack on a number of children who had come into town to enjoy themselves in the Primate’s demesne and walk back to the railway station without offending anyone, or without receiving any molestation. As far as I am concerned I am determined to make such an example on the present occasion as will, I hope, deter persons in the future from making an attack on innocent people of this kind.”
During the sentencing Mr Justice Lawson was scathing of the involvement of Daniel Watson, a soldier of the 89th Regiment, for his role in the disturbance.
The judge said: “As to you Daniel Watson – a soldier – I have to consider you a disgrace to the uniform which you wear. Now, there is nothing more dangerous than a soldier wearing her Majesty’s uniform should engage in a transaction of this kind. In the first place, from your uniform you would be expected to keep the peace, and then there is also the danger of a soldier engaging in a row of this kind, drawing the assistance of his comrades to attack. Like Murtagh, you have been found guilty of assault, as also of riot, and I will pass upon you the same sentence as I have passed upon him – two years’ imprisonment with hard labour.”
Mr Justice Lawson then turned his attention to sentencing James McQuade, he said: “James McQuade, in this riot in Armagh you have not been tried with the other rioters because you pleaded guilty to a much serious offence than that they were charged.
“They were only charged with riot and various assaults, but you have been obliged to acknowledge yourself guilty of feloniously, unlawfully and maliciously wounding William James Blevins, with intent to maim and disable, and, indeed, you carried out that intent most effectually.
“You appear to have gone out amongst these peaceable people armed with a sharp hammer with which you struck this man on the head. You fractured his skull. . . his life was in danger, and probably he may never recover from the effects of your attack.
“This was a most wanton and unprovoked attack on your part, and I would not be doing my duty if I did not pass a heavy sentence. You will have to go to penal servitude for seven years.”
Sentencing of the rioters was not to be the end of the matter. T G Peel wrote to the News Letter from Armagh several days later the conclusion of the trial at the Armagh Assizes refuting claims which had appeared in the Ulster Examiner which alleged that as the prisoners, as they were being removed to the county jail, had come under attack from a rowdy crowd of Protestants.
The following had been published in the Examiner: “On yesterday evening, as the prisoners who were found guilty of riot at Armagh in the month of August last were being brought to the county jail from the courthouse they were followed by an Orange mob, who hooted and booed them and cheered vociferously at their conviction. There were loud cries of ‘No Pope’, ‘To hell with the Pope’, ‘No holy water’, ‘No Home Rule’, and etc. The prisoners were accompanied by a large force of police, but notwithstanding the Orange mob were permitted to act in the manner already stated.”
These allegations, wrote Peel, were nothing more than a fabrication by “a clerk in a solicitor’s office, who is the correspondent for the Examiner”.
Mr Peel wrote: “I beg to state that there is not one word of truth in this statement. There were not ‘loud cries of ‘No Pope’ or a word said about ‘holy water’ or ‘To hell with the Pope’. The whole thing is a pure invention by a juvenile clerk in a solicitor’s office, who is the correspondent for the Examiner. I have been requested to send the correction to you and not to a newspaper which would defile its columns by publishing gross slanders upon the Protestants of Armagh.”
Mr Peel went further to point the finger of blame at Home Rulers and how they had acted back in August 1880 when the mob had been detained.
He wrote: “The facts are that some 16 Roman Catholics were justly convicted of the wanton and unprovoked attack made upon the Bessbrook children, though at the time the Examiner represented the innocence of these men; and when they were being conveyed to jail a lot of their companions followed the police up the Mall, pressing them as if to effect a rescue, and two of the prisoners did break the handcuffs which bound them together.
“The crowd cheered for ‘Home Rule’ and shouted other party expressions. They then went up from the jail to town by Scotch Street, cheering and shouting in like manner, stoning every Protestant who came in view, till the police chased them off.”
Mr Peel concluded his letter to the News Letter defending the good character of the Protestants of Armagh, he wrote: “Out of this juvenile lawyer’s clerk manufactured the above, in which, I have again state, there is no word of truth. So much for the way of leading Roman Catholic organ in Ulster misrepresents facts and maligns Protestants.”